Burlington Hawk Eye, May 4, 1997

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Burlington Hawk Eye
  • 1997 May 4

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Laser disc may be the closest thing
to a live Elvis Costello release

Ben Wener / Associated Press

A Case for Song:
BBC special mixes new, classic material.

He has offered a variety of reasons during his 20-year career — everything from a lack of definitiveness to fearing the label "sellout" — but Elvis Costello remains one of the few veteran performers who has yet to release a proper live document.

Some will argue that he already has, pointing to Live At The El Mocambo (a 1978 promotional record of Costello's first U.S. tour, better heard on any number of superior bootlegs from the era), the too-brief Live At Hollywood High EP, or last year's marvelous Costello & Nieve, a five-disc set chronicling the singer's acoustic mini-tour with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve.

I would argue that none of those qualify as true live releases, the first two having only recently been made legitimate with Rykodisc's reissuing of Costello's Columbia catalog, and the third given collectors-only status, thanks to a paltry 30,000 pressings.

Which makes Live: A Case for Song all the more relevant. A 75-minute BBC special from last year, it combines the complex maturity of Costello's most recent tour with the relaxed atmosphere of his appearance on VH1's Storytellers, and features a pleasing, if not mouth-watering, assortment of old, new and rare material. Right. It's not the great, long-awaited Costello live document either, though the CD-quality sound of laser disc might fool you. It is, however, as close as we are likely to come to one, given that: a) Costello reportedly is abandoning the Attractions (again) in favor of exploring new genres; and b) word is, he wants out of his contract with Warner Bros., leaving him without a place to even issue such a work.

That last rumor adds one catch to this collection: It's going to cost you. Currently, A Case for Song is available only as a Japanese import disc. Warner's has no plans to release it domestically on video. That means it's apt to run $50 to $75 at local laser-disc outlets.

Is it worth it, then? For the most part, yes, though there are flaws. A version of "Pump It Up," for instance, suffers from the same problem a spaced-out take on "Watching the Detectives" did on the Spike tour — both scream for new arrangements, yet their strict confines allow for little artistic expansion.

But only that and a sluggish "Complicated Shadows" are sub-par. The rest of the disc is Costello at the top of his form. Or, rather, make that forms, as he brings out the best in the Attractions on several tracks, including a rare reading of "Riot Act" and a slinky, jazzy "Detectives"; turns in near-perfect acoustic treatments of "Veronica" and "Indoor Fireworks"; and proves that his work with the Brodsky Quartet should be further explored if renditions of "Pills and Soap" and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" are any indication.

Maybe that's exactly what he'll do. In interviews in recent years, he has made more and more mention of his classical leanings. On the other hand, maybe his recent collaboration with Burt Bacharach indicates that he has classic pop on the brain and wants to examine the sort of densely layered sound he left behind after Imperial Bedroom.

Whichever the case, A Case for Song serves as a sweet coda to what may be the end of Elvis Costello as we've come to know him. Fittingly, Costello closes this disc with these lines: "I want to vanish / This is my last request / I've given you the awful truth / Now give me my rest."


Tags: Live: A Case For SongLive At The El MocamboLive At Hollywood HighCostello & NieveRykodiscColumbiaBBCLater With Jools HollandVH1 StorytellersThe AttractionsWarner Bros.Pump It UpWatching The DetectivesSpike tourComplicated ShadowsRiot ActVeronicaIndoor FireworksThe Brodsky QuartetPills And SoapThe Beach BoysGod Only KnowsBurt BacharachGod Give Me StrengthImperial BedroomI Want To VanishBen Wener


The Hawk Eye, May 4, 1997

Ben Wener reviews Live: A Case For Song.


1997-05-04 Burlington Hawk Eye page 10C clipping 01.jpg

Page scan.
1997-05-04 Burlington Hawk Eye page 10C.jpg


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